Contagion

In his jittery new movie Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh takes the unusual step, for a big Hollywood production, of killing off Gwyneth Paltrow very near the beginning of the story. Paltrow’s character turns out to be the key element in the narrative, however, and so she returns in many flashbacks—not always looking her best, especially with the drawn skin, cracked lips, and foamy discharge we see at the outset—but easily earning her above-the-title credit.

This is a deadly-viral-outbreak movie, a challenging genre in that a virus can’t be seen—a fundamental problem in a visual medium—and that the story must inevitably be infused with some amount of medical jargon. The only means of building suspense is to observe the rogue pathogen’s effects on the central characters, and to wonder who among them will die.

Soderbergh handles these difficulties with elegant concision. The medical nattering is kept to a minimum; and the characters, as laid out in Scott Z. Burns’ tight script, are developed as full and distinctively flawed human beings. We care about these people as they go down, and we’re taken by surprise when it’s some of the main ones who do.

Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, a corporate executive who has just concluded a business trip to Hong Kong. As the story gets underway, she is returning home to Minneapolis by way of Chicago (a significant layover, as it turns out). Beth has developed a persistent cough, and assumes she may be coming down with the flu. Back at the house she shares with her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and their two kids, her condition quickly deteriorates: She suffers a seizure and is taken to the hospital, where she dies. Here, Damon has one of his most moving scenes. A doctor informs Mitch that his wife is dead, but the stunned husband can’t process the information. He wants to see Beth; where is she? With minimal means, Damon demonstrates the visceral resistance of a man suddenly confronted with an event too cruel to be credited.

The disease spreads exponentially—through people coughing into their hands, passing glasses and casino chips, punching in numbers on cash machines, gripping door handles. At one point, we’re told that the average person touches his or her face at least 2000 times a day. Sitting in a heavily trafficked movie theater, any viewer might find this information especially discomforting.

As the disease mutates worldwide—through “Day 7,” “Day 18,” and so forth—a desperate epidemiological investigation gathers speed. At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Deputy Director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) dispatches one of his top researchers, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minneapolis to observe the workings of the virus firsthand, while another staffer, Dr. Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle), works tirelessly in a super-sterile lab to develop a vaccine. In Geneva, Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a doctor with the World Health Organization, boards a plane to Hong Kong to attempt to trace the deadly microbe’s origin. And in San Francisco, an independent researcher named Sussman (Elliott Gould), striving to find a way to cultivate the virus for examination, is being harassed by an Internet oracle named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who is stirring up his millions of online followers with charges that the government has already discovered a cure for the disease—and is secretly manufacturing a vaccine with which it will first inoculate its own bureaucrats and political insiders. (This is, shall we say, hardly implausible.)

The movie is most powerful in depicting the swift breakdown of civil society. Police and firefighting forces are quickly overwhelmed, looters empty supermarkets of canned goods, funeral homes refuse to accept infected bodies for burial (mass graves have to be dug), and neighbors turn against each other in fear and suspicion. The rampaging paranoia becomes its own kind of disease.

Soderbergh, who as usual shot the movie himself, is vitally assisted by two longtime collaborators: editor Stephen Mirrione, who helped pare away almost all narrative fat (with the possible exception of the scenes featuring Gould, whose character feels vestigial); and composer Cliff Martinez, whose discreetly percussive score keeps even the unavoidable walk-and-talk interludes compelling. In the end the darkness lifts, of course—otherwise, theoretically, who would be left to watch this movie? But a masterfully edited final montage suggests that very worrisome shadows remain.

Warrior

Warrior seems a likely candidate for induction into the pantheon of great boxing movies. It’s even more ferocious than many such pictures in that it focuses not on standard sluggery, but on the bloody caged combat of mixed martial arts, with leg swipes, head kicks, and resounding body slams packed in among the savage pinned-down beatings. The story—although you can see its resolution coming from a few miles away—has some unique twists. And the three lead performances—by Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton—are, in an unavoidable word, terrific.

Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, a veteran MMA trainer who taught everything he knows to his two sons, Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton). But Paddy was a brutal drunkard back in the day, and he drove away his wife, who took Tommy with her, leaving Brendan to be raised, unhappily, by his father. Years later, we find that Paddy has put booze behind him, but is now estranged from Brendan, who refuses to let him see the two children his son has with his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison). As for Tommy, he disappeared long ago.

Brendan is a popular high school science teacher. But financial reverses have put him in danger of losing his family’s home. Desperate for income, he decides to return to fighting in shabby local matches around the Pittsburgh area. Then he contacts a longtime friend, a gym owner and trainer named Frank (Frank Grillo). Frank feels that Brendan is too old and soft for the fight game, but agrees to start training him for a big MMA tournament soon to be staged in Atlantic City, where the top attraction will be the current world champ, a formidable Russian called Koba (Kurt Angle), who resembles a very tall, heavily muscled refrigerator.

Then Tommy reappears, from who knows where. Dark and angry, he’s now a completely mysterious figure. Tommy, too, has returned to fighting, and is also determined to take part in the Atlantic City tournament. Although he despises his father, he nevertheless recruits him to be his trainer—as long as they speak of nothing but the sport, and never socialize. Paddy sorrowfully consents.

I think you can see where this is heading. But while director Gavin O’Connor whips up a high level of ring action—all of it rousingly choreographed and shot close-in for maximum impact—he also maintains an intense focus on the long-buried emotional torment with which Paddy and his two sons are barely able to cope. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Paddy attempts to penetrate Brendan’s bitterness from the shadows outside his son’s home; and a nighttime confrontation between Brendan and Tommy on an Atlantic City beach that confirms Hardy—the “forger” in Inception—as one of the most gifted young actors in movies right now.    

But Nick Nolte’s performance in this film is its central revelation. Now 70 years old, Nolte gathers together every sad detail of a man who has wasted most of his life on drink, and driven away everyone who ever might have loved him and lightened the burdens of an isolated old age. Over the course of a 40-year career, this actor has often been excellent; and in recent years he has been nominated twice for Academy Awards (for Affliction and The Prince of Tides). There may finally be a win in his future, because in playing a weary man worn down by all the wrong turns his life has taken, he has probably never been better.  

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.